Save journalism?

Exhortations to SAVE JOURNALISM are bad because it’s dangerous to conceive of journalism as an abstraction, a special project, the province of heroes, rather than an ordinary and necessary social good like delivering the mail, driving a bus or cooking school lunches. Heroes aren’t like us. Heroes are people who never need help or protection, because they’re superior to us, extraordinary and separate. But people recording and sharing real knowledge and experiences—“professional” and “citizen” journalists being, as they are, alike in essentials—aren’t heroes.

From Popula. My emphasis.

What is natural?

What does it mean for something to be “natural”? The concept is all over the place. As branding it is something to aspire to. A state that must be protected. Something distinct from humans.

It’s especially jarring in discussions of nutrition and health. The absence of chemicals is ipso facto better for you. The diets of generations past something sacrosanct.

But it’s often an arbitrary distinction.

These orange carrots may not have been sprayed or grown with chemicals, but they’ve been altered by generations of farming. This slice of land may not have any obvious human alterations, no buildings or roads. But our presence in and around it has changed it. We’ve thinned it with our steps and diets. We’ve changed the climate, macro and micro.

Our perceptions of nature are almost always skin deep. Our recognised impact only the most brutal. I’m halfway through a Quarterly Essay on the Murray-Darling Basin, where much of Australia’s agriculture is located and water politics is fierce.

But right now I’m gripped by a contested state of nature:

These stories of the river are increasingly contested, as the engineers attempt to model and restore some portion of “natural” flows. The irrigators on the Lachlan, in their interviews with me, posed the question of what the Water Holder thought the “natural” state of the Cumbung Swamp would have been, and what “sustainable” might look like. What is natural? What people remember from their childhood, what the traditional owners have recorded in stories, or what the water engineers’ models tell us would once have happened before we built dams and locks and weirs and drew away so much of the water for our own use? And how to account for climate change?

The natural state lies outside living memory, in the realm of dreaming and anecdote. In both the real and the political landscape of the Murray–Darling Basin, nature is often referred to, used as a justification for action, but increasingly it is out of reach, a concept rather than a reality.

Put aside that natural appears to be conflated with “healthy”. It’s temporal.

The question seems to be about the baseline. At what point was the river system “natural”? And, if we pick a time when humans were present, why is it any more natural than it is now?

Blinded by belief

I’ve been sitting with the passing of Kobe Bryant for a few weeks now. I was a bit too young and removed to be aware of the rape allegations at the time. I wrote him off when I heard about it later.

I was never really a Bryant fan. My early memories were frustrated. I’d race home from school to find ESPN once again scheduled a Lakers beatdown of a terrible team. Rather than an actual game, between say the Pistons and Heat or Jazz. The Lakers, Bryant, were the only ones Australians wanted to watch, apparently.

Bryant had an incredible record. He was a champion, an MVP, and, until recently, third all time in NBA scoring. But I’d watch him throw up ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. Think about all the talent on the bench with half the opportunities. It felt like we were all giving him a bit much. Or, rather, he was taking it.

This feeling was really captured by Tara K. Menon’s reflection on Bryant in the Paris Review:

The details of the sexual assault case in 2003 make clear that Kobe’s self-obsession often came at others’ expense. In this case, a nineteen-year-old girl. The criminal case was dropped, but it seems almost certain he was guilty. He was definitely guilty of the aftermath: he hired lawyers to destroy a young woman’s reputation.

His apology, lauded by some as exemplary, was additional proof that he couldn’t see others fully. He was blinded by himself, just as he blinded so many of us for too long.

It’s a beautiful essay on the inability to let go of Bryant the hero despite what she knows of Bryant the person. He moulded her. She moulded herself after him. But note the repeated references to his self obsession.

No one held his hand and opened his eyes to another, more accurate vision of himself. He never saw himself clearly—not on his first day, not on his last.

Kobe’s impaired vision is fundamental to what made him one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA. He thought he could do the impossible, and that belief made the impossible possible, again and again: playing through a dislocated finger , making both free throws after tearing his Achilles, forcing overtime with a buzzer beating 3 and then winning that game with a fadeaway three-pointer in double overtime, those eight-one points .

That belief is integral to success has been drilled into me. “Sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can” goes a line from one of my grandpas favourite poems. NBA commentators will often remark on how necessary it is for shooters. That they took the next shot as if they forgot the last one.

But Menon, Bryant, shows it can go too far. It can blind you to others.

This summer I read a great book about the process of basketball: the art of a beautiful game by Chris Ballard. The Kobe chapters are, somewhat predictably, about his legendary competitiveness. Note how early it starts.

He keeps bugging Brian Shaw, then a star player in Europe, to play him one-on-one. Eventually Shaw relents, and the two play H-O-R-S-E. “To this day, Kobe claims he beat me,” says Shaw. “I’m like, right, an 11-year-old kid, but he’s serious.”

Now Kobe is 13 years old and an eighth-grader in the suburbs of Philadelphia, skinny as a paper clip. He is scrimmaging against varsity players at Lower Merion High in an informal practice. They are taken aback. “Here’s this kid, and he has no fear of us at all,” says Doug Young, then a sophomore on the team. “He’s throwing elbows, setting hard screens.”

Bryant, now 17, is to play one-on-one against Michael Cooper, the former Lakers guard and one of the premier defenders in NBA history. Cooper is 40 years old but still in great shape, wiry and long and much stronger than the teenage Bryant. The game is not even close. “It was like Cooper was mesmerized by him,” says Ridder, now the Warriors’ director of media relations. After 10 minutes, West stands up. “That’s it, I’ve seen enough,” he says. “He’s better than anyone we’ve got on the team right now. Let’s go.”

The examples are endless. Bryant’s belief in his own powers started young and apparently drove him to greatness. It was plain every time he took the court. You could see it in his eyes.

But Ballard also reveals the flip side. Of Bryant basically tormenting teammates through an obsession with winning. How, as Menon noted, his self-obsession often came at others’ expense.

Now it’s 2000, and Bryant is an All-Star and a franchise player. Still, when guard Isaiah Rider is signed as a free agent by the Lakers, Bryant forces Rider to repeatedly play one-on-one after practice to house-break this newest potential alpha male. (Bryant wins, of course.) When Mitch Richmond arrives the next year, it’s the same. “He was the man, and he wanted us to know it,” says Richmond. “He was never mean or personal about it; it’s just how he was.”

Unfortunately, this is probably what I will take away from Bryant. He was a joy to watch compete. Not just gifted but amazingly driven to be the best. But there was also a nasty side to that. What drove him to greatness likely drove him too far.

He was blinded by belief.

As always my emphasis

Don’t be trapped by training

As I slowly wrap–up The creativity code by Marcus Du Sautoy, this paragraph makes me consider how our training and experience shape, and in some sense even limit, our world:

Various attempts at learning jazz have taught me that there is a puzzle element to a good improvisation. Generally a jazz standard has a set of chords that change over the course of a piece. The task of the trumpeter is to trace a line that fits the chords as they change. But your choice also has to make sense from note to note, so playing jazz is really like tracing a line through a two-dimensional maze. The chords determine the permissible moves vertically, and what you’ve just played determines the moves horizontally. As jazz gets freer, the actual chord progressions become more fluid and you have to be sensitive to your pianist’s possible next move, which will again be determined by the chords played to date. A good improviser listens and knows where the pianist is likely to head next.

Of course this is by a mathematician and mathematics is a subject of the book. And this grab comes amid an exploration of music and algorithms. But the explicit mathematical digression in the midst of this musical romp sticks out.

I think it’s because I do this all the time (I’m pretty sure we all do). Just like Du Sautoy pulls music through his mathematical lens (and vice versa), we are constantly filtering and analogising. It shapes our world.

As a journalist I have a hard time ignoring the decisions made in stories. Wondering at other angles or how the medium itself (text, audio, video etc.) inherently limits choices.

In that sense my experience has me constantly stuck in the role of participant. Viewing through a lens of construction rather than strict consumption. I consume stories as one of a number of options, as a version rather than a totality.

Perhaps we all do this when consuming news. But I’ve made these exact decisions thousands of times. It’s hard not to envision the dirty carpet of the newsroom, the white walls above my desk, the mild panic as deadline approaches. To wonder how the availability of talent, the domain knowledge of the reporter, any number of other factors; pushed and pulled on what’s before me.

Similarly with economics. After university I have comparative advantage and opportunity cost tattooed on my brain. I’m constantly searching for impacts at the margins. I reason under a cloud of ceteris paribus.

Your training, what you do every day, equips you with easy heuristics. But it can slowly carve grooves in your thinking. You mustn’t let it control where you end up.

The trick is to be aware of it, and, hopefully, leverage it as Du Sautoy has. For greater understanding. Not to be sucked into thinking this is all there is.

As always my emphasis

The misadventures of ‘cause’

One of the laziest conventions in journalism is the daily stock market report. Something went up or down. And, even though it only just happened, the reporter confidently tells us exactly why.

I’ve always found this painful. Teasing out causation from the mass of noise is improbable. Especially with such certainty. Even given sufficient training, tools and time.

But as this passage in The Man Who Solved the Market highlights, it also likely breeds complacence among the retail investors in the audience.

During his time helping to run the Medallion fund, Elwyn Berlekamp came to view the narratives that most investors latch on to to explain price moves as quaint, even dangerous, because they breed misplaced confidence that an investment can be adequately understood and its futures divined. If it was up to Berlekamp, stocks would have numbers attached to them, not names.

Being so certain and deterministic tricks us into believing the market is knowable. After all, these journalists have brought the word from on high. They have revealed the market’s Rube Goldberg nature. Can I not learn these secrets too?

But, similar to how we miss the tiny influences when we reason from personal experience, these sweeping narratives of the market are dominated by a few big themes. They turn chaos into a simple story with characters and events, good and bad. They dismiss all the randomness, which is precisely where consistently successful traders like Renaissance stake their claim.

Another lesson of the Renaissance experience is that there are more factors and variables influencing financial markets and individual investments than most realize or can deduce. Investors tend to focus on the most basic forces, but there are dozens of factors, perhaps whole dimensions of them, that are missed. Renaissance is aware of more of the forces that matter, along with the overlooked mathematical relationships that affect stock prices and other investments, than most anyone else.

That “more” in the last sentence is probably the key. It’s not that they understand the market. But they’re looking at more of it. Well past the simplistic correlations that can be delivered in thirty seconds.

As always my emphasis